Alex was right; a pleasant novelty. Just as he’d wildly guessed, none of the previous crime scenes had any mention of gas cylinders. Not even the tiny ones for self-inflating balloons or bicycle tyres. Motive acquired – the criminals were obviously breaking in and murdering people for their gas. You can’t mine helium, and unless you’ve got some radioactive rocks and access to a lab then balloon wranglers are the best source. The brutal collateral damage pointed to someone mental, or desperate. Not desperate enough to dress up as a clown and buy the stuff in bulk though. Which brought Alex back to Galaxy Team. It seemed a bit petty for them, but who could explain the motives of the people responsible for the cactus prairie in Wales, the animatronic squirrel army which devastated Hemel Hempstead, the buttercup laser guns or the screaming waterfall in Denmark?
It was time to take some action. He had a real chance to get at least one decent photograph and find out what was going on. Alex felt himself getting swept up in the excitement of the chase. He was not a good detective, being both impatient and rather lazy, but he did have recklessness on his side. So, to options. One: stake out some clown homes or a card shop. Bollocks to that. For one thing, there was no pattern. If you’re in a flying machine (and you’re crazy) why bother being systematic? Far better for Alex to take option two and provoke the killer. It was both easier, cheaper and appealingly stupid.
A day later and Alex had his fake business splashed over the local papers, a website and business cards in every supermarket business slot (even killers need bread). Trepan Balloon Menagerie – Fill Your Kids With Fun. A nice font surrounded by dozens of unlikely inflated beasts and the office address in huge letters. The office was an empty shop front in the arse end of town. He’d filled it with the office supplies from the skip next door. It looked like a fine balloonery. Alex settled down in the building opposite to keep watch.
A real stake-out is even less glamorous than when depicted on TV. This was only his fourth stake-out included the night drinking rosé in a patio armchair looking out for a missing cat. He’d never stalked a killer before and was hopeful that he’d qualify for beginner’s luck. He also hoped he wouldn’t die. It had occurred to him several times, while photocopying posters and tapping in the business card details that there was an element of risk that he hadn’t fully evaluated. This is one of the problems with drilling holes in your head, or even with needing to perforate your skull: sure, you escape some of the voices, but there’s always the chance that you’ll take out something useful – like common sense.
The apartment he’d broken into, to keep an eye on his fake premises (which he’s also broken into, to keep his expenses down) backed onto a Chinese takeaway. The smell of oil and meat was making him terribly hungry. The sheer invective of the chefs seeped through the walls like a grease stain. Alex hoped the killer came soon, this was too much like being at home. As a nod to caution he’d taken care not to dress remotely clownishly, to the extent of not even wearing a drab overcoat such as a man might wear when abducting children from the see-saw.
Luck chose to make another unscheduled appearance in Alex’ life at midnight. The Angered Dragon shut up shop for the night and the vengeful chefs faded away. Soon after, as Alex was relaxing with his Thermos of tea, the exact sound Edna had described made the windows shudder in their frames. Alex rushed to the window and pressed his face to the window as if looking for Santa’s sleigh. With his nose flattened, he could just see the sleek, deadly shape of Strangemind’s Petulance gliding downwards. He took a couple of quick pictures as it sank behind the ballooning premises. Game on.
Alex was somewhat disappointed that the killer was using the backdoor. He was perfectly comfortable keeping a road between them. Of course the back was a smart move – parking a flying machine in the front street would be stupid. Oh well, time to get moving. He bounded down the stairs and across the road to press his face up against another window, camera in hand.
Unfortunately, in the interests of greater exposure (and to conceal the discard-décor) Alex had smothered the windows in posters and flyers, all he could see were vague shadows. If he just open the door quietly he might be able get a few surreptitious snaps. He tugged the padlock keys out of his pocket with a loud jangle. He froze, but the crashing sounds from inside suggested his quarry was already engaged. There came a roar of rage from within and Alex dropped the keys with fright and a loud burst of Christmas music (the key fob was a gift and had sentimental attachments). The killer had apparently discovered the notable lack of helium on the premises.
The door exploded outwards as Alex scrabbled desperately back into the road. The wash of anger and pain kept him down. Stepping through the cloud of splinters was a man – two men. Maybe. Something fucked up had clearly happened to them. It looked like one man trying to climb out of the other, half unzipped taking his costume off. A hideous gory pantomime horse. The street lights cast an unnatural hue over the Swiss cheese skin and wet magnified cell texture. The creature(s) bellowed at him. Mostly from one mouth, the other agape wordlessly but enragedly. In one hand was a wickedly retro-futuristic gun – all vents and flashing lights. In another a crowbar and in yet another fist was one of Alex’ posters. The fourth arm was still inside the man-sleeve.
“Your advert?” The thing-man rasped, holding the poster up to compare Alex’ face with the grinning photograph of him inflating a duck.
“Ah yes, about that…” Alex was keen to distance himself from the unfortunate lack of helium cans, but could think of no reason why his innocent and unrelated features would be on the poster. He was spared an embarrassing babble because the street lights suddenly blacked out and with a deep drone the street was bathed in cold blue light. The duoman snarled, tossed the poster and crowbar at Alex and darted/dragged himself back into the shop. The poster was sucked up into the air, but the crowbar bounced off the kerb and hit Alex on the knee.
Oh yeah, the light. Alex looked up . The blue fluorescent cone ended in a vast ovoid above the rooftops, howling with all the forces of science. Galaxy Team. Cool. Despite himself Alex was overwhelmed. Then the shooting began. He’d briefly forgotten about Strangemind’s reputation. Sure, they were heroes… kind of. The kind that took no prisoners, or spectators, or even people who weren’t really nearby. Beams of force erupted from behind the balloon house, tearing it to pieces. The Vortex (for it surely was the flagship) responded by battering the rest of the house and its neighbours into a glowing dust. Alex was by now desperately grappling with the awkward handle at the door of his stakeout. What the fuck were Galaxy Team fighting each other for – weren’t there enough people to vaporise?
As Alex managed to drive the latch down he felt a grip on his shoulders. Cock. He was whipped up into the air, dangling at the end of a claw extending from the belly of the Petulance. The ship took off at speeds high enough to deprive him of air. They dashed across the rest of town in moments and were into the countryside before he’d re-filled a lung. Alex struggled to stop his limbs from flapping at unnatural, breakable angles and tried really hard to ignore the Vortex as it continued to rain fire upon them. With enough air Alex would have been screaming. Minutes later though it felt like a lifetime, the Petulance drew to a violent halt, pivoted and dropped through a long gap in the roof of an abandoned farm’s barn. The claw released him and he fell a storey onto a table covered with helium cylinders. Painful. He lay sprawling and gasping for breath while the Petulance settled into a cradle overhead.